What is Addiction?

Addiction is an illness in which there is a pattern of misuse of a drug, problems with social life or work, and/or evidence of tolerance (gradually needing a higher dose to get the same effect) or withdrawal (having certain dangerous physical symptoms if you stop the alcohol or drug suddenly).

People with addiction suffer from an irresistible need to use a drug at higher doses and more often, despite knowing the serious physical or emotional results and despite extreme disruption of their lives. Addiction is a chronic, but treatable, brain disorder. The brains of addicted people have been modified by the drug in such a way that absence of the alcohol or drug makes a signal to their brain that is equivalent to the signal of when you are starving. It is as if the individual was in a state of deprivation, where taking the drug is indispensable for survival. It is as powerful as that.

The official psychiatric term for addiction is Substance Dependence. Addiction grows more serious over time. Substance use disorders travel along a continuum. This progression can be measured by the amount, frequency and context of a person’s substance use. As their illness deepens, addicted people need more alcohol or other drugs; they may use more often and use in situations they never imagined when they first began to drink or take drugs. The illness becomes harder to treat and the related health problems, such as organ disease, become worse. This is not something that develops overnight for any individual. Generally, there is a series of steps that individuals go through from experimentation and occasional use to the actual loss of control of use. It is this process that defines addiction.

If you feel that you may have a drinking problem, I encourage you to answer these four simple questions, known as the CAGE Test:

  • Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (Eye opener)?

Scoring: Item responses on the CAGE are scored 0 or 1, with a higher score an indication of alcohol problems. A total score of 2 or greater is considered clinically significant.